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EU pledges airlift for expanded Darfur mission

5/24/2005 6:58am

BRUSSELS, May 23 (Reuters) - The European Union pledged on Monday to provide the air transport needed to send thousands of extra African troops to Sudan's Darfur region to help end its two-year civil war.

"As soon as the troops are ready, we'll be ready to transport them to theatre," EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana said after EU defence ministers agreed to offer more help to an African Union mission fighting to quell a conflict that has cost 180,000 lives through violence, hunger and disease.

The AU said earlier this month it would more than triple its existing mission to 7,700 troops by late-September.

France offered to provide air transport for 1,200 troops as well as up to 10 French officers to work within the AU chain of command. French soldiers based in Senegal and Gabon could be redeployed to train African troops in Sudan, officials said.

Spain said it would donate two air transporters to the AU mission and offered to send teams to help train troops and take part in observation missions in Darfur.

"The European Union has had a long presence in Africa and good ties with the AU -- it's on that basis that we are building this mission in Darfur," Luxembourg Defence Minister Luc Frieden told a news briefing with Solana.

"However it is clear that we must do this in a way that complements efforts by others, such as the United Nations and NATO," he said. "We shall not enter into a little game of competition."

The EU and NATO have largely overlapping membership and are at pains not to give the impression of competing for a role in the region. However officials from countries such as France have made it clear they prefer any action to be handled by the EU.

"There is no question of rivalry between the EU and NATO," said French Defence Minister Michele Alliot-Marie when asked about the risk that the two would start competing for a role.

Both the EU and NATO -- whose secretary-general Jaap de Hoop Scheffer was present at the EU talks -- will attend U.N.-backed talks in Addis Ababa on Thursday to agree international help for the AU mission.

The Darfur conflict broke out in February 2003 after rebels took up arms against the Arab-dominated government. Khartoum is accused of retaliating by arming local Arab militia, who burned down villages and slaughtered and raped civilians.

The Africa Union is the main bulwark against such atrocities and has insisted, along with the Sudanese government, that it does not need the presence of Western peacekeepers.

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